In his program note, conductor-director Iván Fischer describes his Mostly Mozart Festival production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro as a staged concert. His agenda sounds serious: “This is my attempt to bring theater and music closer to each other, to create a new natural harmony.” He asks for a new era in opera production, seeking “organic unity” between music and theater. Admirable intentions, but this has already been the goal of opera since roughly 1600. His production doesn’t reinvent the wheel, its virtues are familiar. But a detailed, engagingly performed, and musically excellent Figaro is never unwelcome.

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Le nozze di Figaro in the Mostly Mozart Festival 2013 with Iván Fische © Gordon Eszter
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Le nozze di Figaro in the Mostly Mozart Festival 2013 with Iván Fische
© Gordon Eszter

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is spread across the edges of the Rose Theater’s stage; a series of platforms and an open space in the front constitute the singing area. The frame of the production is dress: ornate 18th-century costumes hang from the flies, and occasionally descend when needed. The singers begin in modern concert dress and gradually change into period attire. This works neatly in the many disguise scenes – Cherubino’s in Acts II and III, the Countess and Susanna in Act IV – as well as underlining the social distinctions vital to this opera.

Fischer himself takes a prominent role in the staging. He conducts a surprising amount of the opera sitting down among the orchestra slightly to the side, only occasionally standing at the center (without a score). He often jokes with the characters (one of the “sua madres” and many of the asides are addressed to him), and at one point has a wig plopped onto his head. This creates an enjoyably casual and relaxed atmosphere – one which had already been suggested by the anarchic staged overture.

Despite the use of clothes, it’s not a particularly focused interpretation, and occasionally stretches the logic of this steel trap plot. (Most glaringly, the Countess’ room has two different entrances.) There’s the occasional bit of politics – a Marianne-style waving tricolor in Act II, and a nice closing image of the characters facing the great black upstage unknown, with the Count lagging behind separately – but the strength of the staging lies in the detailed interactions of the characters. Some of the staging is very conventional (has anyone seen a “Se vuol ballare” that doesn’t involve some kind of dummy?), but it is infused with such spirit and spontaneity that it feels new.

Hanno Müller-Bachmann’s Figaro is at the production’s center. Smart, sometimes self-satisfied, but ultimately decent, he sings with a deep lyric bass-baritone and careful attention to the words. As Susanna, Laura Tatulescu’s soft-grained soprano grew in strength as the evening progressed, and she played her character as quite the modern cynic, cute on command but naturally more adult. In contrast, Rachel Frenkel played Cherubino as very young and shy, but her slim mezzo has a clear line and fine sound. Miah Persson is a veteran Susannah, but here has graduated to the Countess. While she has the stature and dignity for the character, and her “Dove sono” was faultlessly elegant, her compact, cool voice still sounds more like the servant. As the Count, Roman Trekel’s bald head towered over the rest of the cast, and he made a smarmy character, but his singing was monochromatic, and often lost in the middle of ensemble textures. As Barbarina, Norma Nahoun’s warm, generous tone sounded like it is headed towards larger roles soon. Veteran Ann Murray was an unusually humane Marcellina, and Andrew Shore a very funny modern lawyer Bartolo.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra didn’t really come into their own until the beginning of Act II, where they played the introduction to “Porgi amor” with real grace and transparency. They always plays with a slightly dry, tangy tone that owes a certain affinity to the historical performance movement, here abetted with, it appeared, natural horns. Fischer’s conducting was, as he promised, dramatically attuned, and exciting, particularly in the Act II finale. In “Contessa perdono” in Act IV, one could have wished for something more luxuriant – but that may have been out of place in this casual evening at the opera.

While Fischer the Director may not be reinventing the Gesamtkunstwerk, he’s made a well-rounded Figaro that has plenty to offer to music, theater, and music-theater people alike.

****1